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Our Animal Partners

The Road To Resilience

I went to talk to T Yamamoto about her sustainable sheep breeding program, but came away with a larger perspective.  The ideas in this article do not represent a consensus of the Transition group, but I feel that we need to have a conversation about this.  T is a founding partner of Wolftown, a non-profit wildlife rehab center here on Vashon, now in its fifteenth year.  She has also been working to breed a tough and resilient sheep that is adapted to our mild and moist environment.  

As she came out to meet me, she handed me her hat saying, “ This wool was converted from native brush around here.”  Until then, I had not known that a sheep can be a browser (brush eater) as well as a grazer (grass eater).  Nor could I have had a more tangible and dramatic demonstration of the utility of sheep.  We bald animals in this cool, moist world of trees and bushes need wool to survive.   Aside from a bit of hay when they need to be confined for short periods, her animals forage only on the trails, the fields and woods around them.

What makes tough resilient breedstock?   First off, she says that modern stock, whether sheep, cattle, goats, pigs or fowl, are dependent on modern dewormers and antibiotics, as well as a richer diet and a more protective atmosphere.  She wanted a sheep that could handle the heavy parasite load of Vashon Island without getting sick, could drop a healthy lamb outside on a rainy winter’s night, and could do it on a diet of what we have growing here.  After toughness, she was looking for good wool and milk production, lastly meat potential.  For ten years now, she has brought several different breeds into her experiment, such as Icelandic, Shetland dorset, Scottish blackface, Rue arcot, and Fresian, keeping only the progeny that showed improved characteristics.  After ten years, there is definite progress. They no longer have to worm lambs and have very little problems with other diseases. As this flock is Open, not kept away from outside flocks and their diseases, the sheep have been exposed to any number of outside problems. Only the sheep who do not contract anything are then bred.  I expect that in a transitioning future  when many things we have today are not available, we will thank her for her foresight and practicality.   She would love to have more people sharing her experiment and has stock to sell.

A word on domestication.  She sees domestication as an ancient partnership.  Did we domesticate sheep or did they domesticate us?  It certainly appears that the sheep have done well with our help.  For us, even without eating them, the work of their teeth, hooves, and manure are vital to plant production.  Another type of domestication is that represented by dogs.  T claims that she could not care for her sheep without the help of her working dogs.  I have to admit that I was impressed with the enthusiasm and efficiency with which her young border collie, Sweep, the Broom, rounded up her sheep from a half mile down the pasture well out of our sight.  Imagine something better than chasing cats and getting stroked for it besides!

T Yamamoto is much more than this.  She was fortunate to be raised by a family that depended on both animal husbandry and hunting to provide for themselves.  This deep and ancient knowledge of how to live with and partner with animals was second nature to her.  Most of us living out of the grocery store know nothing of this.  She has offered to teach anyone the arts of hunting, raising sheep, butchering, shearing and processing wool, milking, cheese making, whatever, and asks only that you help out at Wolftown in exchange. 

There is a spiritual aspect to her way of life as well.  Part of  T’s  education was understanding the importance of death in the continuance of life.  Some of you that eschew the necessity of killing other animals might see her as a harsh and unfeeling person.  Far from it, she is a very compassionate person that has given her life to mending the wounds that our civilization has given to animals trying to live in a world that we are slowly crowding them out of.  Rather than the warm and fuzzy world that we civilized people like to live in, she prefers to look at the world the way it in fact operates.  The death of one is a gift to all that remain, and what makes that noble is the acknowledgement that we each, in turn, will give of ourselves when our time comes. 

This is not an apology for industrial feed lots; feeding ruminants grain in crowded feed lots makes them sick, it makes those of us that eat them sick, is unsustainable, and a moral abomination as well.  If you are a meat eater, it is important that you understand where your meat comes from.  Better still, to participate in taking the life that provides it, so that you can try to resolve in your mind the seeming paradox of compassionate death, and have a deeper understanding of what it means to participate in this great wheel of life of which we are all a part.

If you want to see sheep dogs in action for yourselves, be sure to catch the Sheep Trials this weekend.  Sept 31 through Oct 2ndat Misty Isle farm off of Old Mill Road.  T will be demonstrating hand shearing, so you can meet and talk to her there. 

Also, Peter Ray will be showing Into Eternity, a film about the legacy of nuclear waste, at Café Luna, Saturday, Oct. 1, 7-9 pm.

Comments?  (Certainly there will be some this week)